A Dying Tale

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The families of Surabhi Theatres have been on stage for 125 years. Now they are struggling to keep the art alive.

Surabhi is the name of the village where Vanarasa Sanjiva Rao founded a theatre company in 1885. Originally leather puppeteers, they first went onstage to face an audience during a wedding. As their fame grew, so did their numbers; and at one time, there were up to 60-65 Surabhi troupes. In the 1970s, there were 25 Surabhi groups. By the 80s, however, they dwindled to five as production costs shot up and patrons steadily declined.

All Surabhi plays are about mythological subjects and are enacted only in Telugu. But language is no barrier to understanding these plays—the visual effects are enough. No wonder they are in demand beyond AP as well.

When Surabhi started performing, their actors spoke Telugu with a Marathi accent. So, they took a bold decision to abandon their mother tongue and speak only in Telugu.

Surabhi families belong to the Aare Marathi community, a warrior class. They migrated to Rayalseema after Shivaji’s death and took up puppetry for livelihood. Even then they used to do everything themselves: setting up thatched pandals, designing sets and costumes, writing scripts and staging plays as a travelling troupe. They even toured Burma and Malaya in 1908.

And even today, it is family members who manage all aspects of the theatre.

—Anil Budur Lulla